OH WILLIAM! – Elizabeth Strout

My fourth read of the 2022 Booker Prize longlist was Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! (Random House 2021).  Despite being the third in a trilogy, Oh William is crafted such that it can be read as a standalone.  Written as a fictional memoir, the novel scratches at some things I typically dislike in fiction. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t wowed by Oh William.  For this type of writing to work for me as a reader, I must fall in love with the narrator.  And, while it’s a very unpopular opinion, I did not care for Lucy Barton.  Maybe if I read the first two of the trilogy, I’d have a different opinion of her, but the Lucy Barton telling us her story in Oh William is not someone I care about.

Lucy, a 64-year-old recently widowed novelist, explores grief, love and loneliness in this brief “fictional” memoir of a novel.  There is a comfortable familiarity with her ex-husband, William.  Despite being a philandering pompous jerk, she still sees him as her only “home.”  They’ve been divorced for years, and he’s on third wife, but they’ve maintained a friendship over the years.  When her second husband dies, Lucy finds a welcomed diversion in William’s struggles.  His third wife has just left him, and he’s just learned that he has a half-sister.  When he asks Lucy to join him on a trip to Maine to uncover more information about his German POW father and his half-sister his mother had left behind, she accepts.  The trip forces her to face her impoverished and traumatic childhood, her unhealthy marriage to William, and the continued struggles in her heart and mind.

In perhaps my favorite scene, Lucy is having a panic attack.  William, not exactly sympathetic, asks her why she’s having a panic attack.  She tells him his khakis are too short and it “depresses the hell out of [her].”

The novel is well-written, and Lucy is wonderfully developed and complex as a character, I just didn’t like her. Imagine getting seated next to an older woman, one who is slightly drunk and sad, on a long flight. It’s fun for a bit, but by the time you land you just want to give her your therapist’s number.  I’m pretty sure Strout recognized there may be a low threshold for tolerating Lucy – the novel is only 237 pages.

Should you read it?  It’s a quick read by a talented author.

Booker count: 4 of 13

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